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Death by the Virus or Death by Starvation…Sophie’s Choice of the Poor

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  Dr.TARINI MEHTA 
As the world closed down to contain the spread of the novel corona virus, coping with the virus has meant different things for different countries and people. In India, the rich and the poor have starkly different experiences. While a small percentage of the population has access to food, medicines, medical care and other essentials, for a large number of Indians, the lockdown has brought starvation and poverty.
Newspapers, as well as social media have reported the deaths of well over 200 people who have died of starvation, lack of medical attention, exhaustion, police brutality, and crimes caused by the lockdown. There have also been suicides owing to loss of income, lack of food, and psychological distress caused by fear of the virus as well as depression arising because of the social isolation imposed by the lockdown. The number of deaths due to the lockdown would, however, be much more.
Beggars on the streets are dying; there is no one now to offer them alms. The 6 million homeless children in the country are one of the worst affected by the lack of food and access to medical care. They are truly abandoned. Across India there have been cases of children dying of hunger. Only a few cases, such as of an eleven-year boy passing away in West Bengal and a ten-year old boy in Bihar dying of starvation, have been brought to light by the media. The millions of street children who are suffering remain unaccounted for and faceless.
Migrant workers, having lost their wages and unable to return to their villages are confronting a dire situation. With insufficient support for mere survival, hunger and depression loom large before them. This is poignantly illustrated by the case of a 24 year-old migrant from Bihar who committed suicide in Hyderabad as he had no money to pay rent and was unable to return to his village owing to the borders being sealed. Fear, distress and hopelessness is being experienced by many like him across India.
The lockdown has put India’s poor and marginalised populations on notice. On the one hand there is the danger of contracting the deadly corona virus, and on the other hand, dying of starvation.
28 % of the world’s poor – 364 million people – are found in India (UN Human Development Index 2019). Furthermore, 21.9% Indians live below the poverty line. Many of these people are outside the social security net. As of now, about 8% of India’s population, amounting to 108.4 million (calculated on the basis of population projections and the coverage ratio of the National Food Security Act), is excluded from social welfare schemes and public distribution system (research conducted by Meghana Mungikar, Jean Drèze and Reetika Khera). This unfortunate segment will be unable to access the additional food aid the government provides to Aadhar-based ration card-holders during the lockdown. Moreover, this 108 million is just a fraction of the entire population that is excluded. Research by Dreze suggests that coverage of the PDS is, in fact, only about 60%, rather than 67% as mandated by the National Food Security Act. In the context of the lockdown, among the remaining 40%, several million more now find themselves food insecure. It is estimated that around 90% of India’s workforce – 120 to 150 million – is employed in the informal sector as domestic workers, labourers, farm workers, as well as in the transportation sector and so forth. Many of them have lost their jobs due to the lockdown. The dire situation of migrant workers across India has been highlighted by a report released on April 15th by the Stranded Workers Action Network. 50% of the 11,159 migrant workers surveyed had rations left only for a day, 72 % would run out of food in two days. A fortnight into the lockdown a mere 1 % of the stranded workers had received rations from the government, and three weeks into the lockdown the percentage of those who had received rations had still only reached 4%. To make matters worse, 89% of them had not been paid by their employers during the lockdown period. The lack of financial security and food availability has given rise to nutritional deficits, near-starvation, the desperation to return to their homes, and a great deal of physical distress and psychological trauma. The report also raises the fact that since millions of these workers are not registered, the Central Government’s announcement of aid to construction workers from the cess collected by labour welfare boards would not hold much value. 400 million informal sector workers in India could be pushed deeper into deprivation and poverty owing to the corona virus crisis and consequent containment measures and loss of jobs, as per a recent report by the International Labour Organisation.
Similarly, the list of PDS beneficiaries has not been updated for over five years and excludes many children and women. Many are not able to access the PDS as they do not have a ration card, their Aadhar card is not linked with their state’s ration card facilities, or their applications are still pending owing to documentation-related faults. Children are facing starvation, despite the fact that State Governments have been directed to provide a food security allowance in lieu of the Mid-Day Meal, which would include the quantity of the food grains as per the entitlement of a child.
The impact of the lockdown on these vulnerable persons raises key questions about the duty of the Government towards its citizens in such situations. While it is indisputable that strong measures have to be taken to curb the spread of the virus, is it also not imperative that those measures be tempered such that negative consequences on the poor and vulnerable are avoided. Pushing people into the fire of starvation and poverty in order to save them from disease, is that justifiable.
Since the corona virus has been declared a ‘notified disaster’ under the 2005 Disaster Management Act, could not the government have also made use of India’s disaster response frameworks and mechanisms to ensure that all people have access to the basic essentials – food, shelter, medicines and medical attention. Surely, a step as stringent as a nationwide lockdown requires a commensurately robust response that ensures that the rights of all people are protected.
The Right to Life – a Fundamental Right protected by the Constitution, includes within its ambit the right to all those things that make for a decent life – food, health, livelihood, education and so forth. It doesn’t merely protect life in the form of bare survival. It is more than ‘mere animal existence.’ The Supreme Court has, in fact, stated that “the Right to Life includes the right to live with human dignity and all that goes along with it, viz., the bare necessities of life, such as adequate nutrition, clothing and shelter over the head…”
The Government, thereby, needs must have the foresight and vision to put in place measures that protect people’s lives not only from the virus, but also from the poverty, starvation and consequent ill-health arising from the measures enacted to prevent its spread. The preventive measures should not become as harmful as the disease.
There is also the question of the future repercussions of the impacts of the lockdown on the millions who have lost their incomes and are unable to access basic essentials. The economic cost could be catastrophic. The UN University estimates that the percentage of India’s population living below the poverty line would increase by a further 8%, taking the figure to 68% and taking India back by a decade.
As India continues to grapple with the virus, and some regions and states may decide to extend the lockdown past May 3rd, a deep thought must be given to these repercussions. Urgent measures need to be put in place to stem the suffering and deaths caused by the lockdown-induced poverty and starvation.
(Dr Tarini Mehta is an Assistant Professor at Jindal Global University’s School of Environment and Sustainability, as well as a lawyer specialised in environmental and human rights law.)